So before I talk about the movie itself, a little bit of background on the film, exhibitors and myself. This is an expensive Netflix production, that is getting a limited theatrical release ahead of it’s debut on the Netflix steaming service. The reported budget was near $200 Million and that looks like it made it to the screen. The Directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, who did some of the most successful MCU films, were in charge for this show. The reason that the release is limited probably has something to do with the fact that several film chains require exclusivity to theatrical for a set amount of time, and Netflix was not prepared to accept those conditions. AMC is one of those exhibitors who will not play a movie that is going to compete with itself, at least not after the pandemic restrictions which had call most bets off. I am happy to see a film on streaming, but I much prefer the theater experience, so when given the opportunity, I took it and traveled to a nearby town to be able to see this since it was not within a ten mile radius of where I now live. With rare exceptions, this site is devoted to the cinema experience. There is too much content on streaming for me to keep up with, and I don’t want to review TV. However, since Netflix make the effort to put this in theaters and I made an effort to see it in one, it will get some attention from me here.
“The Gray Man” is a spy film, which focuses on the assets that are primarily in place to kill someone. Although there may be comparisons to Mission Impossible” or the James Bond films, this is really closer to “Atomic Blonde“, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard“, “The Accountant” or “The Eiger Sanction“, which all pretend to be spy films but are really cat and mouse games between paid killers. “The Gray Man” is not a character that works in intelligence, they do not infiltrate conspiracies to bring them to an end, there is not really much suspense in the work they do. The Gray men exist in the shadows, executing directions that have been given to them rather than forging their own path. Sierra Six, Ryan Gosling’s character in this film, is basically a weapon for action, not a tool of investigation. As long as you keep that in mind, you will probably be able to enjoy this film for what it is.
The Russos have managed, along with the screenwriters and editors, to cut the story down to the minimal outline required in order to have a plot, and then filled in that skeletal structure with as much screen action as is possible, staying just this side of the nonsense that shows up in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. There are wild shootouts in crowded locations every few minutes. There are also over the top car chases on city streets between the shootouts and while they are happening. Cars don’t fly between buildings or swing from one cliff to another, but people do emerge from wrecks that would kill most of us at half the speed, and they simply jump up, dust off and get in the next ride. The foot chases are sometimes tough because of the shaky cam that is used to film them, but the car chases are problematic so often because the use of frequent close ups keeps us from observing the context and knowing what the risks are.
There are certainly joys to be had in the overkill that is employed in providing mayhem on screen. All of that is OK for an audience interested in pyrotechnics only. Any viewers who were looking for a plausible story with characters facing consequences for their choices will be disappointed. It is as if the CIA, sent it’s own forces en masse to London, to collect Julien Assange or to Moscow to get Edward Snowden, and along the way they wiped out half of the security services of those countries and there were no ramifications. That’s because this movie is not about anything, it is simple a diorama for moving the toy soldiers around and blowing things up. If you have seen the MCU films the Russo Brothers have directed, you will see that they are quite capable of showing interesting mayhem. They continue to be able to do that.
Gosling is delivering an understated character as an action hero pretty well. He keeps the sardonic quips to a minimum and provides a voice that is exhausted, injured or optimistic as the situation calls for. His co-star and fellow agent Ana de Armas, is proficient physically as she was in “No Time to Die”, but her character here lacks the joyful enthusiasm of that character and she is simply another action figure without much personality or purpose. That was certainly not the actress’s fault, it is the screenwriting team that left her high and dry. Chris Evans plays against type in this film, as he did with his previous effort which starred Ana de Armas, “Knives Out“. The antagonist Lloyd Hansen is a psychopath with skills but no off switch. The notion that the CIA deputy director that turns him loose had any idea what was coming, undermines the credibility of the plot. Evans is not required to do much, but his hostile passive aggressiveness, combined with actual torture, will make you hope he gets what is coming to him. As usual, the gravitas of a film he appears in is provided by Billy Bob Thornton, who in the last couple of decades has become one of my favorite on screen performers.
This film seemed to have a stink on it before it opened. I’m not sure why. It is not great but it is certainly not a terrible picture. It is an action film that goes all in on that avenue and abandons any attempt to make us care much about who gets killed except for the two leads. If you see it in a theater, you will get your entertainment value, but not much else.